***I posted this as a note on Facebook last night, but I want to share these thoughts here as well.***
My Aunt Hazel died yesterday, about 24 hours after she suffered a massive stroke. She was 84 years old and was my dad’s oldest sister; she was the oldest sibling in the family.
I was close with my Aunt Hazel. She was widowed when I was still very young–perhaps even before I was school age. After my Uncle Howard died, my parents had Aunt Hazel over quite a bit for dinner, as well as for holidays and special occasions; by the time I was in high school, if not sooner, she was over at least once a week.
During my senior year of high school, Aunt Hazel and her friend Donna took me on a campus visit to the college from which I would eventually graduate. I can’t remember why, but for some reason neither of my parents could take me. It was an overnight visit, so they probably couldn’t get off work or something like that. Anyway, Aunt Hazel volunteered her services–which really meant that she volunteered Donna’s, since Aunt Hazel didn’t drive and Donna drove her everywhere at the time–and she and Donna set off with me to northwest Ohio and the small town of Bluffton. I had never been north of Dayton at the time, and I don’t think they had been to that part of the state, either, so it was quite the adventure. I remember Aunt Hazel was particularly excited that they were taking me on a college visit, since she did not go to college herself and was very proud of the fact that I was a good student and that I was college-bound.
Other than the car ride, I didn’t spend much time with Aunt Hazel and Donna on that trip; since it was an overnight visit, I stayed in the dorms, and I attended classes and was busy on campus the next day. I remember that on the way up, we kept laughing about the number of exits on I-75 that were labelled “County Road 25-A.” Aunt Hazel would say, “Just how long is that road?!” and then crack herself up. I also remember how the three of us went out to dinner at the old Denny’s in Bluffton; we were all appalled by how horrible Bluffton water tasted.
But what I remember most of all is how meaningful it was to me that Aunt Hazel made sure that I was able to go on this trip and how she reveled in sharing that adventure. It was another moment in my life when I realized that my educational accomplishments and goals were not mine alone; instead, as Deborah Brandt writes of one of her participants in Literacy in American Lives, “Like a delta, Michael’s environment for reading and writing was a repository of accumulating material and ideological complexity that carried the history of economic transformation within his region and his family” (101). The opportunities that I have had–and will have–were built on the backs of the women in my family who never had those chances themselves but who made sure I would develop the literate abilities needed to pursue them. Aunt Hazel was one of those women. She supported my education in whatever ways she could, taking pride in my intellect and never teasing me for my bookish ways. That meant a lot to me, especially when I was a teenager and felt so different from others around me.
I also spent a good deal of time with Aunt Hazel during my last year of high school, my college years, and the early years of my marriage because she was a caretaker of my maternal grandmother, who came to live with my parents at the end of my junior year of high school. As my grandma aged, she could not stay home alone while my mother was at work; Aunt Hazel was enlisted to sit with Grandma during some of those days. This is why some of my favorite memories of my aunt involve my grandmother. I would come home from school or work–or G and I would come over for dinner–to find Grandma and Aunt Hazel sitting in the TV room, cackling together over the exploits of some celebrity they’d read about in “the trashies,” Aunt Hazel’s term for the tabloid magazines she loved to read. My Uncle Larry and Aunt Marie had given her a subscription to the National Enquirer (or one of those magazines), and after she finished reading an issue, she’d bring it to my grandma to read. When Grandma could no longer read the small print of the magazine, Aunt Hazel would read to her, and they’d have a ball. Listening to the two of them was a hoot.
As my aunt grew older, my parents took her shopping for groceries and other things, and she would come over for dinner more frequently. She became part of all of our family celebrations, and I always looked forward to seeing her when I came back from Columbus or Fort Wayne. Aunt Hazel and M were very fond of each other as well, and that relationship brought me a lot of joy. I didn’t see her as much during the last two or so years of her life; it became harder for her to go out, and she finally had to move into a nursing home this past summer.
When I was home over Labor Day weekend, my mom, M, and I went to visit Aunt Hazel. I am so thankful I had that opportunity to talk with her for what turned out to be the last time. I’m also thankful that M was able to see her as well. Aunt Hazel was pretty much the closest thing M had to a great-grandma, and M loved her. We had a good visit that day; we talked about M’s school and ballet, my job, P, and other things. I had planned to visit her again over Christmas. I’m sorry that was not to be.
Goodbye, Aunt Hazel. I am better because you were in my life; I hope I enriched your life during the thirty-seven years I was part of it. I will miss you.